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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

New scandal rocks Støre’s government

NEWS ANALYSIS: You could almost hear the rock band Queen singing “Another One Bites the Dust,” when Norwegian goverment minister Sandra Borch announced her resignation live on national TV Friday night. It leaves Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre once again having to deal with a new ministerial scandal in his historically unpopular government.

Sandra Borch was royally appointed as government minister in charge of research and higher education just last August, when Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre (center) had to replace another errant Center Party minister, Ola Borten Moe, who’d held the post since 2021. At right, Geir Pollestad, also of the Center Party, who replaced Borch as Norway’s new agriculture minister. They’re shown leaving the Royal Palace after King Harald V formally approved their appointments. PHOTO: Kunnskapsdepartementet/Martin Siewartz Nielsen

Støre now needs to quickly replace Borch, who suddenly resigned as Norway’s government minister in charge of higher education after confirming she’d plagiarized other students’ text when preparing her own master’s degree thesis in 2014. She becomes the seventh government minister that Støre has had to replace over the last two years because of various scandals or conflicts of interest. She’s the fourth Center Party minister who’s landed in trouble, while three Labour Party ministers have also had to step down.

News service E24 had reported in detail earlier on Friday how Borch copied entire portions of two others’ master theses delivered in 2005 and 2009, and inserted them into her thesis. Borch was studying at the University of Tromsø, while the theses she plagiarized were written and delivered by students Tanja Charlotte Øistad at the University of Oslo in 2005 and Alexander Danielsen at the University of Bergen in 2009.

Neither Øistad nor Danielsen received any credit for their work that showed up in Borch’s thesis, complete with some spelling errors. Borch admitted at a short press briefing Friday night that she had failed to name them either in her thesis’ text, its footnotes or in its references.

Sandra Borch of the Center Party admitted live on national TV Friday night that she PHOTO: NRK screen grab

“When I wrote my master’s thesis around 10 years ago, I made a big mistake,” Borch said while reading from a prepared statement. “I collected text from other theses without mentioning the sources. I am very sorry about that.”

Copying others’ work and presenting it as one’s own is viewed as cheating and forbidden for students and academics at all levels, also in the publishing world. E24 reported that some of Borch’s plagiarism appears already in the introduction to her thesis, which was about security regulation in Norwegian petroleum operations, ironic since the government lost a court case just last week over its failure to prepare climate impact statements for three new oil fields that the Center Party has supported like all others. Center is a major proponent of Norway’s increasingly controversial oil and gas industry, and has long been criticized over its climate policy.

Borch’s plagiarism is especially serious since, as she admitted herself, she was in charge of “securing good regulations for carrying out examinations” at the college and university level. She also said she wasn’t sure how many text similarities there are in her thesis, adding “there can be more examples than E24 has reported.” After reading her statement Friday night she refused to answer any questions and walked out.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre read his own statement at a nationally televised press briefing Saturday, after accepting the resignation of his latest errant minister. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Støre, in accepting Borch’s resignation, stated that it would have been “difficult for her to have the necessary confidence of others as minister for higher education.” He later said at a press briefing Saturday afternoon that he’d only been informed of her plagiarism and decision to resign Friday afternoon, when he was on a defense-related trip in Northern Norway. “It was not a nice message to get,” he said.

Borch was already a well-known politician for the Center Party when she delivered her master’s thesis in 2014, and had led its youth organization from 2011 to 2013. She has been a member of municipal and county councils in her home region of Troms in Northern Norway and was a Member of Parliament when Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum selected her to serve as agriculture minister in the new government being formed by Center and Støre’s Labour Party after the 2021 national elections.

Vedum himself serves as Norway’s finance minister and has only issued a brief statement of his own: “Sandra Borch has made a mistake and has chosen to take responsibility for it. I respect that.” He claimed she had been a competent minister and a “clear voice, first for agriculture and then in her role as minister for research and higher education. Borch has been important for her party and will continue to be so in Parliament.”

It’s expected she’ll now return to her seat in Parliament at least for the obligatory duration of her current four-year term. Members of Parliament are generally not allowed to give up their seats, barring a criminal conviction. The University of Tromsø (UiT) told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that it will now investigate her master’s degree in line with standard practice when questions arise. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reports that Borch’s plagiarism was initially uncovered by a current student at business school BI who reported it on social media. That was picked up by E24, which used a program called Copyleaks that uncovers similarities in documents.

Vedum and Støre had asked her just last August to move from the agriculture ministry (an important post for the rural-oriented Center Party that champions policy to support Norwegian farmers and protect them from foreign competition) and take over as minister in charge of research and higher education. She replaced another Center Party colleague, Ola Borten Moe, when he had to resign after being caught in various conflicts of interest.

Not many members of Jonas Gahr Støre’s original government in 2021 are still in place. PHOTO: NTB Kommunikasjon/Statsministerens kontor

Støre has also had to replace five other ministers both before and now after Borch’s trouble. First out was Labour’s own Hadia Tajik, who resigned just six months after the new government was formed after questions regarding her tax breaks in connection with commuter housing provisions for state politicians from outside Oslo. Then came the replacement of the Center Party’s former defense minister Odd Roger Enoksen after a sex scandal.

Last year brought a string of trouble with ministers caught in conflicts of interest  over political appointments of some friends and acquaintances and over stock trading by both Borch’s predecessor Ola Borten Moe and the husband of the former foreign minister, Anniken Huitfeldt. She didn’t want to resign but Støre ended up replacing her anyway, even though she may re-emerge as Norway’s ambassador to the US. Støre “renewed’ his government at the same time, replacing another highly criticized minister from the Center Party, Sigbjørn Gjelsvik, who’d admitted to some  “poor judgment” himself.

It’s all believed to be behind extremely poor results for both the Labour and Center parties in last autumn’s local elections, and steep declines in recent public opinion polls. Another poll released this week by research firm Norstat for newspaper Aftenposten and NRK shows Labour with just 19.4 percent of the vote and Center diving to just 5.7 percent, less than half its election result in 2021. Together they have less than the Conservative Party alone, which was polled with 26.8 percent of the vote despite its own serious conflicts of interest involving its leader and former prime minister Erna Solberg.

Solberg was among those supporting Borch’s decision to resign as minister but hoping that Borch “has good people around her now in this storm.” Solberg has just been through a political storm of her own and knows how brutal it can be.

Others have little if any sympathy for Borch, including Progress Party leader Sylvi Listhaug. “Now enough is enough, and I’m seriously worried that all the scandals in the Støre government and Norwegian politics weakens public confidence in the whole political system,” Listhaug told NRK. “The Støre Government now looks like the biggest scandal-government of all time.” Listhaug’s Progress Party, though, has had its share of scandals as well, and she had to resign as a minister herself during Solberg’s two-term coalition government.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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